Dennis Williams, a former welder who helped jump-start Barack Obama’s presidential bid, is poised to lead the United Auto Workers union as it seeks to accelerate a recovery paced by resurgent U.S. automakers.
Williams, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer, was named by a union caucus as its candidate for president during a press conference yesterday in Dearborn, Michigan. Williams, 60, has led the UAW’s efforts to organize U.S. workers at Volkswagen AG and Nissan Motor Co. factories in Tennessee and Mississippi.
The UAW has accepted lower wages for new auto worker hires in a bid to rebuild membership that fell to Great Depression era lows in 2009, when General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC’s predecessors went bankrupt. If elected in June, Williams would succeed Bob King, 67, who has benefited from the Detroit Three’s recoveries while staking the union’s future bargaining power on adding members from Asian and European carmakers.
“The UAW is facing some very serious problems in terms of its long-term survival,” Art Wheaton, a labor expert at Cornell University, said in a telephone interview. “Organizing the transplants down south is critical. If you can get a foothold in some of the assembly plants in the South, then you can start organizing the suppliers to that assembly plant.”
Williams was “central in orchestrating” Obama’s win in the Iowa Democratic caucus, a key early victory that helped spur his 2008 election, according to his biography on the UAW’s website. Before becoming secretary-treasurer, he was director of the UAW’s Region 4, which includes Iowa and Obama’s home state of Illinois.
“I’m not afraid of confrontation,” Williams told reporters yesterday. “We’ve had a long history of tough battles over the years, but we’ve also learned from them. None of us want a confrontation. We want a fair, decent contract.”
The Obama administration crafted an $80 billion auto industry rescue plan that included the managed bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler in 2009. President George W. Bush, a Republican, had given the companies emergency loans in late 2008 to keep them in business long enough for Obama, a Democrat, to extend the controversial bailout.
The UAW’s membership rose 0.5 percent to 382,513 last year, the union’s highest since 2008 and the third consecutive gain, as U.S. automakers added employees amid rising sales.
While the UAW’s 2012 membership gain followed a 1.1 percent increase in 2011, the union’s total membership is still only about one-fourth its size in 1979, when it peaked at 1.5 million. Before 2010, membership for the Detroit-based UAW was at the lowest level since 1940, the year before the union organized Ford Motor Co., according to data from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.
The union began allowing GM, Ford and Chrysler to hire new hourly workers for about half the previous starting wage of $28 an hour in 2007. The automakers agreed to raises for those workers in 2011 contracts to as much as $19.28 by 2015.
Williams called for “rebuilding the labor movement and eliminating the injustice of the two-tier system” at a three-day UAW conference in Washington earlier this year, according to the union’s website.
“The two-tier system will be in place until we can organize the transnationals,” Williams said at the time, referring to automakers based outside the U.S. He showed members a video of organizing efforts at Nissan’s factory in Canton, Mississippi, and said the UAW was working with international unions such as the Japanese Auto Workers union, according to the website.
The UAW said in September that it was meeting with officials from Volkswagen and its Global Works Council about representing workers at its plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“We’re very positive and upbeat,” King said yesterday of the Volkswagen organizing effort. A majority of the workers at Chattanooga have said they want UAW representation, and Volkswagen is “the first company that has lived by the standards that they say they’ll adhere to.”
Nissan and other automakers have said they too will respect workers’ rights to organize, and then have run “very vicious” anti-union campaigns, King said.
A Marine Corps veteran, Williams joined the UAW in 1977, according to his biography on the union’s website. He is a member of the committee that leads the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, which provides health-care benefits for retired UAW members who worked for GM, Ford and Chrysler.
The trust responsible for Chrysler retirees faces $3 billion in unfunded obligations and is seeking the most for its 41.5 percent stake in the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based automaker from Fiat SpA, which owns the rest of the company. The shortfall last year was reduced from more than $5 billion in 2011, according to a financial statement filed last month.
Williams spent 5 1/2 years on the picket line striking against Caterpillar Inc., the world’s biggest maker of construction and mining equipment, he told a UAW convention in 2011.
In the end, the union agreed to a two-tier wage system with Caterpillar that is similar to the arrangement the UAW has with the U.S. automakers.
Williams’s history of helping lead the Caterpillar strikes contrasts with the approach by King, who has preached a more collaborative than combative approach to dealing with automakers as UAW president. Still, Williams is viewed as a close ally of his predecessor, Wheaton said.
“There is no expectation that he will radically change the direction of the union,” he said. The UAW’s leadership expects that Williams “won’t necessarily be a motivational speaker. They just want to make sure he can win at the bargaining table.”